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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Living | Arts / Cyberlinks
Making a score in video games

By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff, 02/26/99

Imagine you're on a plane to Seattle, all dressed up in shiny new shoes and headed for your first real job. The guy next to you begins the clever in-flight banter. ''So, what do you do?'' You explain that you compose music for video games, and Mr. Chatty lets out a laugh so loud that the tray tables rattle. Your new shoes suddenly seem scruffy; your ego is deflated.

That happened five years ago to Jeremy Soule, who was all of 19 at the time. ''The guy said, 'Oh, you make all those little noises, all those beeps and boops?' It was so depressing,'' the composer recalls.

But in the past five years, the music for interactive games has gone from simple beeps and boops to large-scale symphonic orchestration. Soule is one of about a dozen artists in the vanguard of this burgeoning field. His score for Total Annihilation, a popular strategy game released in 1997, was recorded by Northwest Sinfonia, a 95-piece orchestra made up of musicians from the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and Northwest Ballet. The music sounds like the soundtrack for a popcorn flick -- lush and emotional, full of peaks and valleys. It's no wonder that John Williams is Soule's favorite composer.

Total Annihilation was one of the first games to feature a symphonic score, but it's becoming de rigueur in the industry. Games like Myst and Riven have separate soundtrack CDs. If you're anything like me (with gaming skills that begin and end as a Trivial Pursuit), you can skip the bombs going off in the game and just listen to the music.

Soule, 24, is in-house composer for Cavedog Entertainment in Seattle, where he's working on the score for its adventure epic, Amen: The Awakening. He sounds like a cross between the garret artist and the kid glued to the video screen when he describes his work. ''Our hero narrowly escapes an atomic blast by going into a manhole and flipping down into the subway tunnels beneath New York,'' Soule explains. ''There's moss and decay everywhere. I created a score with a lot of low strings, a very soft mallet on a gong, and muted percussion. It sounds like you're in a tiny room, with a serious feeling of claustrophobia.''

Soule didn't imagine he'd be composing scores for computer games. He started composing when he was 3, and he could notate music before he could write his name: ''My mother can prove it,'' he says. His father is a music teacher (''I call him Mr. Holland,'' Soule says), and Soule took college courses in composition when he was in junior high. He went straight into the profession at 19.

And the on-line industry is burgeoning. ''The interactive game industry is opening the door to opportunity, which is always a good thing,'' says Ron Sobel, assistant vice president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Soule is working on self-producing CDs of his music; samples are available at www.jeremysoule.com. Some of his fellow composers are lobbying the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to add a category for interactive music at the Grammy Awards. Hey, they award one for best new polka, so why not? Besides, the days of beeps and boops are long over.

Pascal de Vries has tried and he's tried and he's tried, but he hasn't been able to get any satisfaction. That might change sometime soon. His popular site, www.lyrics.ch, may be back on line next month.

This story begins back in January, when de Vries, who lives in Basel, Switzerland, was approached by the local police seeking to shut down his lyrics data base, which lists the words to more than 114,000 songs. The reason: The New York-based National Music Publishers Association accused the site operators of copyright violations, and Swiss police seized the computers that drive the site. Since then, De Vries has been negotiating with music association president and CEO Edward P. Murphy to work out a licensing deal.

''The police came to my house, but I was at work,'' de Vries recalled. ''They found my colleague in Zurich and took the servers from there. He was at home, and they questioned him for four hours. We were really surprised and shocked.''

The site was launched two years ago as an amateur project; de Vries is in a rock band in his spare time, and he and his fellow musicians were looking for an easy way to get lyrics so they could cover songs in English. The little idea grew. Its founder says the site was getting about a million hits a day when it was shut down. He originally used his own money to foot the bill, but as response grew, so did costs. Before it was shut down, the site cost about $40,000 a month to run and was supported by revenue from advertisements. De Vries says it just broke even.

The problem was that the Swiss musicians didn't own the license to list the lyrics. Enter the powerful music association. Things began testily, but now it looks like a deal is likely. De Vries can't discuss the details, but the two sides are going to work out a licensing arrangement or a revenue-sharing deal. The pact would be unprecedented, allowing the music association to take its trade into cyberspace in a proactive, rather than a reactive fashion.

And all those kids in garage bands will be able to find the words to their favorite covers. De Vries's own band, called First of May, has a few favorites: ''Hotel California'' and ''Smoke on the Water.'' And he's looking forward to the day when the smoke finally clears.

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